A sermon preached at Prestbury Methodist Church on Epiphany Sunday, 6 January 2013
Want and ought
Before the year runs away with us, I want you to think for a moment: what would you like to do this year? This isn’t about resolutions; this is about what you want to do. Imagine that your boss and your bank manager had no say in the matter at all, what would you like to do, to see, to achieve? What do you want to do?
OK, we’ve had a chance to dream. Now let’s get real. Bring your boss and your bank manager back into the picture, and all those other people who run your life for you. And we ask perhaps a more realistic question, what do you have to do this year? What’s the big thing you ought to achieve?
My guess is that for most of us the answers to the two questions are very different from each other. And if that is so, then how we feel about the two will also be very different.
How do you feel, what are your emotions, when you think about some of the things you want to do? And how do you feel, what are some of your emotions, when you think about the things you have to do; the things you ought to do this year?
I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty heavy when I think about my have-to-do list; but I get warm and fuzzy feelings thinking about things I want to do
Today is Epiphany Sunday when we celebrate God’s revelation of himself to the world as a human being in Jesus Christ. We usually focus particularly on the coming of the wise men, because, through them, Jesus is revealed to the wider world beyond the borders of Palestine.
But today we also begin a five-week preaching series on discipleship, to prepare us for our Covenant Service on 3 February. And our theme for today is the Call to Discipleship.
Call versus cost
It’s important that we begin a series on discipleship with the call. All too often it’s the cost that comes to mind. When we think about discipleship, it’s very difficult not to think about hard work, discipline, and ultimately, doing things we would rather not do, that we really struggle to do.
Discipleship, therefore, usually gets added to the list of things we have to do. We think of it as one of the things we ought to do, rather than something we want to do. I’m sure that, like me, you have spoken about discipleship for so long, thought about it, discussed it in Bible Studies and prayed about it. And, like me, you just feel that you haven’t actually done it yet—or not as much as you should. Perhaps this year, perhaps this month of preparation before the Covenant Service, is when we will push ourselves to do it properly.
But I want to suggest that we may have got it wrong. Epiphany is a celebration of God revealing himself to us. Discipleship is not us trying to find God; God has come looking for us. God seeks us out; he enters into relationship with his creation: with you and me, with our neighbours and with all that he has made.
An offer they could not refuse
So, when Jesus called his disciples, he didn’t tell them what they ought to do, he didn’t add to the burdens of their lives; he made them an offer; a crazy offer, let it be said, but it was an offer they could not refuse. Well, of course, they could have said no; they could have turned him down. But the offer was just too enticing and, in the end, they just couldn’t say no. They discovered they wanted this more than anything else in life.
Even sceptical Nathanael (“What good can come out of Nazareth?”—that Nathanael), even he couldn’t refuse the offer when it came. It’s what Jesus said about the treasure hidden in the field. When the man found it, he knew it was worth more than everything he owned. So, what did he do? He covered it up and planted potatoes. No, of course not; he sold everything he had, and he bought the field. And the man who found the pearl beyond price? He sold everything and bought the pearl. Why? Because he knew he wanted it more than anything else. Nothing else was so important.
Call before cost
So, we begin not with the cost of discipleship, but with the call; with the discovery of the pearl, if you like. Because if you are not convinced that this thing called discipleship, this walk with Jesus, is the only way you want to live, is the only way you can possibly live, is more important to you than anything else, you will never afford the cost, you will never stick to the discipline.
What is it that you want to do more than anything else? Pearls might not do it for you. When Jesus called the fishermen (Matthew 4:18–22), he said to them, “Come with me. I’ll make a new kind of fisherman out of you.” He didn’t ask them to become lawyers or theologians. He asked them to let him translate their passion for fish into a passion for people.
Fishing might not do it for you either, but we are not looking tonight at the specifics of each person’s call; we are just at the beginning of our journey. More important is to make sure we are looking in the right direction, that we understand what the call looks like, so that we can recognise it when it comes.
Success or fruitfulness
Henri Nouwen asks the question that I think shows us where to look. He asks, “What’s more important, success or fruitfulness?”
It’s an important question, because from every side we are coerced into believing that success is way the most important thing in life. Everywhere we look we are bombarded with images of success, and success is constantly demanded of us. If you are not successful already, you should be striving for success. And the Christian faith is not immune from the success dream. Discipleship itself is more often than not packaged as a quest for “success”
Success is not real
The problem with success is that it’s not real. It’s a goal we can never reach. It’s like money: you never quite have enough. Fruitfulness, on the other hand, is not a goal; it’s not something we can strive for; it’s not something we can claim. Fruitfulness is a journey. And depending on how you journey, fruit will come—or it won’t.
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with success; with setting goals and committing to them. Successful people are essential for the economy, for food security, for the supply of water. And I do not believe that God wants any of us to be mediocre in the way we approach life, or to throw away our talents and waste them. But we must never imagine that achieving our goals, making a success of our lives, is all that God wants for us; or that, through success, we will become great in the kingdom of God.
Weakness and vulnerability
Nouwen says that success comes from power, control and respectability. (Again, nothing wrong with those things used well.) But fruitfulness is founded on weakness and vulnerability. He says, “Community is the fruit born through shared brokenness, and intimacy is the fruit that grows from touching one another’s wounds.” [Bread for the Journey, January 4]
If success is all we are willing to share with each other, we will remain individuals, separated from each other. It’s my success, or your success. We might look on with awe and be very pleased for one another, but we are looking on. And there is always the fear, “What if I fail next time?”
But when we share our brokenness, there is no pretence, no hierarchy; we are drawn towards one another, and community is born. And as we draw close enough to touch each other’s wounds, as we trust each other’s touch, nothing remains hidden, there are no masks and we grow towards intimacy. Fruitfulness is founded on weakness and vulnerability.
Silver Linings Playback
We watched the movie, Silver Linings Playback last week. Pat Solitano, the main character who has bipolar disorder, spends most of the movie refusing to be vulnerable. “It’s not my fault. Let me just explain.” Only when he begins to allow himself to be vulnerable, only as he begins to allow the vulnerability of others to touch him, does he begin to discover how precious life can be: how much beauty and wonder there is.
Again and again, we discover that it’s in relationships that life really happens. We are most fruitful (you could say we are most alive) in relationships, rather than in our determined drive towards success. And it is into relationships that Jesus calls his disciples in every age.
The most important commandment is “Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbour.”
We are not called into a schedule of dos and don’ts, a checklist of achievements:
- We’ve increased our Quiet Time to 35 minutes a day; we’re on our way.
- We’ve got our tithe up to 9 percent; we’re nearly there.
That’s not the pearl beyond price, a treasure you want more than all you have. We are called, my friends, into relationships; a journey towards fruitfulness.
Jesus spelled it out again. He said to his disciples, “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Importance of love
I’m not sure that we Christians really understand how important love is. I’m not sure that we really grasp that love, loving our neighbour and loving each other, is the only thing that really matters to God. Even when we do think about love, we focus on our love for God and we tend to miss the point that love for God and love for neighbour cannot be separated. Love for God can only truly be expressed in our love for neighbour.
Hell, not heaven
Part of our difficulty is that we are looking in the wrong direction. We often think of discipleship as our journey to heaven. But Jesus said that if we want to follow him, we will be following him not to heaven but to a cross. Jesus didn’t go to heaven for us; he went to hell—literally, with our sins. Now he says, effectively, go and do likewise: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Paul tells us in Philippians 2, that although Jesus had the very nature of God, although all of heaven was laid out before him, he did not try to become more like God or hold onto his godness. “Instead (verse 7), he gave up all he had. . . . He became like a human being. He was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to his death on the cross.”
Roland McGregor, an American Methodist minister who writes a weekly email on the lectionary readings, put it this way.
“How children grow up,” he writes. “It seems only yesterday he was a baby in the manger. He takes after his father. But, he is trying his best to be a human being. Strange, God trying to become a human being while human beings try to become God. We are like ships passing in the night.
‘Hey! Wasn’t that God we just passed going the other way?’
Wouldn’t it be a shock to get to heaven, and God wasn’t there; look back, and he’s in Calcutta (or Khayelitsha or Phayiphini). ‘Wait! We could have been in Calcutta.’”
“Indeed,” McGregor says. And he quotes Revelation 21:3, “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is (not in heaven) the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them…’”
Call to be neighbour
Discipleship is not a march to heaven, nor is it a list of things to achieve. Discipleship is a call to fruitfulness, not successfulness, to vulnerability, not power. Discipleship is a call to be neighbour, whoever and wherever your neighbour might be. And the question the disciple asks of God is not, what can I do for you today, or even, how can I be a better disciple? The question the disciple asks every day, in every situation is what would love look like, how do I express love, in this relationship, in this moment, in this place?
Sandy Hook: We Choose Love
Let me leave you with this from Newtown, Connecticut, where the survivors of last month’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, went back to school this week.
The memorials (to the dead) are gone, replaced by signs reading, “We are Sandy Hook. We Choose Love.” The banner at Town Hall reads, “Together We Birth a Culture of Peace.”
John Woodall, a psychiatrist who lives in Newtown and has worked on various trauma response programs, praised the school’s and the community’s response to the tragedy.
“It’s almost as if this horrible event stripped people of the (pretence) that usually keeps people separate from each other,” he said. “The respect and kindness among people has been remarkable. You might think the words ‘Newtown student,’ like ‘Columbine student,’ would bring to mind kids who are traumatized, psychological casualties. But we’re determined to have ‘Newtown student’ mean something different — to become a role model for the best of humanity — for showing that light can come out of darkness.”
“We are Sandy Hook. We Choose Love.”
And you and me? We are Christ’s disciples. We choose love.